Devil’s Advocate: Current D-Line Rivaling LeBeau’s Champions

You may recall for the past several offseasons that I ran an article series called The Optimist’s/Pessimist’s Take. I used it to explore different issues and topics the Pittsburgh Steelers were facing and took a positive or negative approach, examining each side in a separate article. This is essentially the same idea behind that, only condensed into one article for every topic.

In this version of the idea, I’ll be playing the Devil’s Advocate for both sides of the issue, looking at the best-case and worst-case scenarios in trying to find the range of likely outcomes of what is likely to happen for the Steelers relating to whatever topic the article is covering.

When it comes to the process of trying to construct a championship roster, the reality is that there are a ton of moving parts, and several ways to acquire said parts. There are a lot of things that can go right or wrong in not always predictable ways, so I think it’s helpful to try to look at issues by seeking out the boundaries of the likely positive or negative results.

Topic: Does this defensive line have the capability of rivaling its contemporaries of their most recent Super Bowl era?

Right now, the Steelers feel as though they have the most talented defensive linemen that they have in years. But one wonders, when contemplating their potential, how good can they be as a group? How many years would one have to go back when defining them as the best group they’ve had in ‘x’ years? All the way back to the Steel Curtain of the mid-70s?

Certainly, right now, the trio of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Javon Hargrave is still walking in shadows of their most recent contemporaries of the 2000s, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel, under Dick LeBeau, with a couple of rings to show for their efforts. All three of them made at least one Pro Bowl over the course of their careers, while none of the current group have.

Heyward is obviously the furthest along not just in his career, but in his game, and he recorded 14.5 sacks over the course of the 2014-2015 seasons before injuries sidetracked him a year ago. And Tuitt managed to put up 6.5 in 2015. Hargrave at the nose tackle managed three sacks as a rookie, including the playoffs. As a pass-rushing group, this one has the potential to be better, even factoring in the reality that they get to rush more urgently.

But I think there can be no comparison when it comes to run defense, going from Hampton, one of the great run-stuffing nose tackles in history, to Hargrave, who is undersized for the traditional nose guard. His game in this area will continue to develop, but he will never go to a Pro Bowl for his run defense.

Tuitt has shown flashes of dominance, but his inconsistency is holding him back at the moment. He missed a significant number of tackles last year, as well as opportunities to close the deal on the quarterback.

Do they have the potential to rival the trio of Smith, Hampton, and Keisel? Perhaps. How likely is it that they are able to reach that potential? That is a harder question to answer.

Which side do you lean closer toward?

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • Biggie

    I really like our starting group, they are all guys with nonstop motors. We have some interesting depth as well with Alualu, McCullers and Walton, though I’d have no problem adding a later pick to the mix like Rochell from ND or D.J. Jones from Miss.

  • capehouse

    Quite frankly I think Heyward and Tuitt have underperformed. I think both are great, but if we’re paying them both $10 mil a piece by the time the season starts we better see a lot more production.

    If we’re just talking 34 D lines they definitely pale in comparison to Hampton, Smith and Keisel, and you can even switch out Kiesel with von Oelhoffen and say the same thing. The ’95 line of Steed, Buckner and Seals is one of my all time favorites and I think was better than our current line. Heck, how about Gary Dunn, Keith Willis and Keith Gary combining for 27.5 sacks in ’83!!!

  • Spencer Krick

    I think the DLine is set, unless you want to grab another 3 tech penetrator in the draft.

  • Big Joe

    If all healthy, they’ll be a formidable group to be sure. After Heyward’s injury, Tuitt was able to still make a difference with Hargrave on the field and taking on some double teams. The question for me is whether or not the front seven will be able to get enough immediate pressure that limits the time even for a quick passing attack like NE’s. And, I think the answer lies in what we ultimately do in this draft to better our backend for man to man press coverages that slow receivers at the line and stay in their hip pockets down field. Looking forward to finding out.

  • Steve Johnson

    No comparison to the previous DL. I like Hargrave, I don’t think he will ever be compared to Big Snack (C. Hampton). Brett Kiesel/Aaron Smith vs. Stephen Tuitt/Cameron Heyward? Naw, however, I think the ceiling for Tuitt is a lot higher than Heyward. Don’t get me wrong, neither three of them are slouches.

  • Chenz33

    I think it’s a great 3-man front and, if healthy, will challenge their predecessors this season.

  • colingrant

    This group is talented, however if we chose to judge talent by individual statistics, this group wins hands down. The reality is LeBeau’s groups whom we all know were sacrificed to stop the run, are best judged by team stats, of which his best group I believe averaged 3.3 average yards per rush attempt and this group 4.3 if memory serves me correct.

    We’ll never know how Aaron Smith or Kiesel or any defensive end under LeBeau’s restrictive system would do whereas liberal run-stoppage responsibilities have enabled this current group to make more (splash/athletic) type plays which definitely passes the eye and individual statistical test.

    I believe a representative grade can be given when Hargrave and the outside linebackers each have at least 3 years under there belt, as LeBeau’s outside linebackers in Woodley and Harrison (defensive ends basically) significantly impacted the effectiveness of the interior 3 linemen. Bud Dupree still has 30-40% upside that needs to be closed and we have yet to establish a productive right outside linebacker.

  • Mark G Hunter

    All the great Pittsburgh Steelers Dlines had one thing in common….. They had equally if not greater linebackers and defensive backs. Until the Steelers, add another impact rush linebacker, corner and maybe safety, with Pro Bowl potential to team up with a young Shazier, Dupree, VW, Burns and Davis. The defense front won’t be as great as they potentially can be. They have a chance to add some those type players in this deep defensive draft. I trust that Colbert and Tomlin will do just that. And that the position coaches continue to develop them to fit what the Steelers are trying to do…. That’s get back to being a top 5 defense for the next 5-7 years or so.

  • Dorian James

    Agreed. Didn’t Joel steed and big Buck make a few probowls?

  • LucasY59

    Individual talent I would say the 3 they have now are more physically gifted (which makes them better in 1on1 matchups) but as a group and filling roles so that the D can be a contender for a #1 overall, it is easily the previous trio, Hampton, Smith and Kiesel made the other players around them better, and its pretty obvious that cannot be said about the current 3,

    I think the Defensive scheme is being altered to play to the strengths of these individually talented guys and the D could have success (as long as there is good individual talent at other positions) I like that there is a realistic possibilty to get 20 sacks from the DL (especially since the OLBs are struggling, but I sometimes wonder if the reason the OLBs arent getting pressure is because they dont have guys like Smith, Hampton and Kiesel eating up blockers)

    the problem with having all the singularly talented guys is that they might not play as well as a whole than a group of guys that play the scheme and help the other guys on the field play better, I like that they have the talent, but they have had to invest heavily to get that talent (mainly with early rd picks in the draft, but will have to invest a lot of the salary cap in the future as well)

  • LucasY59

    I think it is/will be a bigger issue in the secondary where guys get left hanging because someone else isnt filling their role properly (and thats why I want guys like Melifonwu who should have good individual talent, but also plays his role well and covers for the rest of the secondary like a good saftey should)

    Mike Mitchell has had issues with this since he came to PGH and even made Polomalu look bad (Troy was slowing down, but you could see the difference between MM and Clark, fairly quickly (Ryan also losing a step had exposed TP before Clark moved on as well, but adding a new young guy did not fix the problem of being out of position and giving up big plays, on both players part) even now with MM and Davis there are poor angles taken, missed tackles and lapses in coverage, so IMO Mitchell might be the most glaring weak link on D (even though he is somehow viewed as one of the better players?)

    *had to split it into two parts since the secondary part isnt really related to the ? in the article

  • VaDave

    The day I see one of our three main cogs launch an offensive lineman, like Hampton did to Tobek in Super Bowl XL, I’ll agree they are on a par with the 2000 crew. It’s a laugh to even think that either our current group, or even the 2000s crew are/were even in the same planet as the 70’s bunch. That said, by what passes for defensive linemen today, I like our guys.

  • Mark G Hunter

    The scheme IS being altered to play to the pass rushing strengths of the front three. The organization decided on that a few years ago. Probably because they knew, they where trying to rebuild the defense, but at the same time stay competitive. With the departure of Wordlis and possibly not being sold on Jarvis Jones, Or maybe because they saw that Lebeau time was coming to an end, and Tomlin was gonna implement more of his Cover 2 into the defense. (No matter who was gonna replace Lebeau). He was gonna get those type players. So I believe it’s a combination of factors. One I think is, they want the D to be less depended on the blitz. Rush 4/5 and drop back 7/6. We’ll soon see if they can get those back 7 guys on the same page.

  • Mark G Hunter

    If they could get Melifonwu (he’d obviously be perfect for the Gronkowski’s, etc they have to face) with the 30th, Rivers with the 62 and a corner with the first 3rd rounder. Problem solved. Then it’s up to the coaches to develop them.

  • LucasY59

    thats how I am hoping the draft works out

  • Darth Blount 47

    You basically stole/mimicked my thought process, so no need to comment. On talent individually, I think this group is better. But the LeBeau guys had the luxury of being able to do a simpler job and with some really incredible talents behind them, to clean up the mess. Porter ended his career with 98 sacks. Troy was Troy. Ike was locking down the outside. Clark was underrated. Potsie was manning the middle. Deebo wreaking havoc. And Timmons was a multi-pronged beast… etc..etc.. This group behind our current D-Line has been a collective mess.

  • Boots

    I think the talent to be in the same conversation is there, but the game had changed so much in the last five or six years its hard to do an apples for apples comparison. It would go a long way towards getting over the hump if they could start to live up to the potential!

  • Mark G Hunter

    If not those two plus a corner. How about Riddick, Baker and a Corner? For me any combination of BPA of need of LB, CB, S with the first 3 pick’s I’m happy with. Let’s keep our finger’s crossed.

  • Kick

    Casey Hampton is irreplaceable. Hargrave is a nice talent but he is no big snack. I remember Hampton being more of a force his rookie year. Our ends can definitely be considered the best.

  • Darth Blount 47

    Choose one draft group out of these 3…

    Jordan Wills/Desmond King/Montae Nicholson
    Obi Melifonwu/Derek Rivers/Fabian Moreau
    Haason Reddick/Josh Jones/Damontae Kazee

  • Mark G Hunter

    2, 3 than 1. All good selections. Hope we can get 3 out of those 9.

  • LucasY59

    I like Baker best as a Slot Corner, and think he could play Safety well enough, but I would be a little concerned with him as a full time starter, I would want them to add someone who could sub in for a LB (or get a LB that can cover) as well, that had size to cover TEs

  • LucasY59

    2nd option is the best, 3rd isnt bad either, but the 1st group is reaching on all 3 picks IMO

  • LucasY59

    agree the entire D has to improve (guys like Shazier, Dupree, Burns and Davis are already there and should be able to play better) but they also need to add a few more players this draft so I am hoping they pick heavy on D, at least 5 players are needed (OLB, CB (slot and/or outside) S (dime capable) or ILB (that can cover) and quality DL depth) and I wouldnt be upset if they picked 7 (doubling up on OLB and CB just to have better chances of having talent at those positions for the future)

  • LucasY59

    the current group has potential though (and should add at least a few more with this draft)

  • Darth Blount 47

    I could see where you might think that with group 1… but honestly, if you want Willis, I seriously doubt he is there for you (us) at 62. Same with King. If you want him, you better not think you’re getting him at 94. And I think Nicholson goes in the 3rd, so his value is sound.

    Honestly, I have no clue which one of those I’d most prefer. I suppose I’d go with group 2 though as well, end of the day. Though each are tempting to me personally.

    I could have added a bit better Safety to group 1 to make it a tougher choice for some. Maybe Baker or M Williams… but I like Nicholson and think he has a bright future, because he still has room to grow, and all of the athletic tools and size/speed that you’d need.

  • Matthew Marczi

    To be fair, the nose tackle simply doesn’t have the same role that it did in the early 2000s, on any team, let alone the Steelers, so Hampton obviously had a far greater opportunity to make an impact. Pittsburgh only used a nose tackle on about 30% of their snaps last year.

  • tcirish53@gmail.com

    Great starting group – active, usually stout v the run, but no depth (until Alualu proves himself).
    Definitely not as reliable as the SB D but still pretty good.

  • Kick

    Casey Hampton’s absence is the reason for the decline in NT reps. You are proving my point.

  • Matthew Marczi

    No, the proliferation of three-receiver sets is the reason for the decline in NT snaps, a league-wide trend. The Steelers are reactive in their defensive packages, taking the nose tackle off when three receivers are on the field.

  • Ryan Alderman

    I think they’re asked to do different things and are able to do things the former trio were not as well.

  • Kick

    Hampton didn’t come off the field in those situations until late in his career.

  • MC

    Three sacks as a rookie I think is a little under the radar stat for J Wobble. I don’t think we’ve had a Dlineman in the last decade to do the same. I can’t really compare the lines, I was too young to appreciate the intricacies of lineman when the first group was around plus they did different things. We had stud linebackers that could rush much better so they were more concerned with running lanes. Felt like Kiesel still had a year or two in him also.

    The guys we have now are definitely better at rushing the passer however as the scheme allows it more. No point comparing Hargrave to Hampton as they are different player types with different responsibilities.

    All I know is I love both groups. I can’t wait for the outside linebacking core to catch up with the development of this D line and then our front seven will be unstoppable.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Please provide a source with your assertion. Either way, on today’s roster in today’s game, Hargrave would be the nose tackle more likely to stay on the field against three-receiver sets.

  • jsteeler

    You cannot compare players from different era’s and different defensive schemes vs Offensive teams that have different offensive philosophies and personnel. Most importantly, The mental and & physical make up of me has drastically changed. Men are much different from even 5-10 years ago. Skill and technique is one thing. Heart is another. All these guys today are playing for money & fame. Today’s Football is all entertainment.& gambling. Thank you to all the owners. The Rooneys too for allowing Fan Duel & Draft kings to determine the outcomes of game for a bottom line profit. Look up NFL. It is a Television show categorized under Entertainment. Entertainment doesn’t have to real to entertain. The NFL is the newest 24 hour reality show and all of them are scripted. SMDH.

  • jsteeler

    How is a DT going to get more than 3 sacks if ALL OF THE QB’S IN THE NFL ARE GETTING THE BALL OFF IN 3 SEC OR LESS. BRADY IN 2 SEC.
    This is a passing league. No comparison to the defensive line players of the 90’s or 2000’s..

  • pittfan

    Because of his pass rush skills?

  • Mark G Hunter

    Sounds like a plan. Also a TE, QB and/or RB (resign D. Williams?) to top it off.

  • LucasY59

    If they take the minimum 5 defensive players they could get 3 offensive players, but if they went all the way to 7, I think RB would be the only pick for the O (and bringing back D-lo for one more yr would be a good idea as well, because good depth behind Bell has been a need/problem every yr)

    I think the 2018 draft could be Offensive heavy to try and balance the last 2 drafts a little, IMO a QB and TE can both wait until then (and if the Defensive picks turn out the early picks on O wont seem like a luxury)

  • Matthew Marczi

    Exactly. Including the postseason he already has 30% of Casey Hampton’s career sack total, and he’s still learning how to be a pass rusher.

  • Kick

    Going from memory.

  • pittfan

    yeah, he’s gonna be a good one, if your LB’s aren’t your best pass rushers stay in 3-4 and keep him on the field. at the end of the day you need 3-4 guys who can beat 5 so that when you rush a 5th it’ll have an impact. to answer your topic, this DL has great potential but we need results before we go crowning them IMO